Interfaith Service in DeKalb focuses on remembrance, racial healing

A community choir of 35 voices performs an African-American spiritual called "Ain't You Got a Right." Douglasville-based Jane Wilburn Sapp arranged the song and accompanied the choir during Wednesday's Interfaith Reconciliation Service at the DeKalb History Center in the historic Courthouse. (Video by Ryon Horne/AJC)

The venue for the Interfaith Reconciliation Service in DeKalb County was chosen in part because of its symbolism.

The courtroom inside the historic courthouse, now home to the DeKalb History Center, represents the denied justice to the victims of lynching who were honored during the service. It is also a relic of DeKalb's segregated past and the home of a Confederate monument that has been reframed as a symbol of white supremacy and racist rhetoric.

During Wednesday night’s service, that courtroom also became a space for healing, with roughly 200 people in attendance pledging to tell the truth about DeKalb’s history of racial injustices and to address issues that linger today.

The first part of the service was titled "Facing Our Past," and Dee Smith shared information about the three known lynchings that occurred in DeKalb. Audience members gasped at the details of the mob violence that resulted in Reuben Hudson's hanging in Redan in 1887. Much less is known about the 1892 incident near the Lithonia quarries that resulted in the deaths of up to five black men.

Read more | Effort in DeKalb County seeks to honor black victims of lynchings

Porter Turner was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in 1945, and officials believe it was because he was a black cab driver who dared to pick up white fares.

September 18, 2019 Atlanta - Family members of Porter Tunrer, a taxi driver who was lynched by the KKK in 1945, sing along at the Interfaith Service on Wednesday at the DeKalb History Center inside the Historic Courthouse. RYON HORNE/RHORNE@AJC.COM

Five members of Turner's family were sitting in the front row. Smith, who serves as chairwoman of the coalition that produced the event, said the service is the first event in the "Journey of Remembrance and Reconciliation."

That campaign will culminate next year with the unveiling of markers recognizing the victims of lynchings in DeKalb. Turner’s family was standing in Wednesday night for countless others, Smith said.

“You represent all families of all the victims of racial terrorism, known and unknown,” she said. “We thank you for coming, and just remember our commitment to you.”

Related | DeKalb’s ‘Journey of Remembrance’ begins with Interfaith Service

During the second portion of the service, focused on the present, anyone who self-identified as being a white person was encouraged to stand and read in unison an adapted poem by Marianne Williamson titled "Prayer of Apology to African Americans."

“With this prayer, we acknowledge the depth of evils that have been perpetrated against black people in America,” they recited. “From slavery, to lynchings, to white supremacist laws, to the denial of voting rights, to all the ways both large and small, that abuses have occurred — all of them evil, all of them wrong.”

To end the segment, a choir of 35 people crowded around a piano as Jane Sapp played an old Negro spiritual that she gave modern arrangement. The power of the composition built as the choir blended in four-part harmony.

“Ain’t you got a right to the tree of life?”

Sapp said before the service that the title of the song, which provides the framework for its repetitive lyrics, has always resonated with her.

“It’s always been the fundamental question of this country when it comes to race,” she said. “We must answer that question and act on that question and deliver the answer to that question that, ‘Yes, you’ve got a right.’”

September 18, 2019 Atlanta - Georgia State Representative Becky Evans (right), District 83, reads along with members an apology adapted from “Prayer of Apology to African Americans” by Marianne Williamson. RYON HORNE/RHORNE@AJC.COM

The final segment, a “call to commitment,” found members of the audience filling out post cards promising to share in the work, whether by speaking up around racist comments or doing more research about the history of racial terrorism in Georgia and the United States. This exercise started out silently as individuals wrote their commitments down, but then the master of ceremonies told them to start talking to each other about these pledges.

Druid Hills resident Schaune Griffin, who has been working with the Remembrance Committee, said these conversations were among the most memorable parts of the service.

“The room,” she said, “it was this joyful cacophony of people sharing.”

Read more | Marker supplies historical context for DeKalb’s Confederate monument

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The story so far

After the DeKalb County commission approved a resolution to authorize a lynching marker near the courthouse, the AJC began to research the three known incidents. In June, the paper published an article accompanied by a 16-minute documentary that provided information about the lynchings in DeKalb and the efforts by the NAACP and others to acknowledge what has occurred. Wednesday night’s Interfaith Commemoration Service was the official public kickoff to this initiative, called “A Journey of Remembrance and Reconciliation.” Other events are planned in the county surrounding themes of racial healing and acknowledging past atrocities. In early 2020, lynching markers in Lithonia and downtown Decatur will be unveiled. More information about the DeKalb Remembrance Project can be found on naacpdekalb.org or by calling (404) 241-8006.

A video recording of the Interfaith Reconciliation Service can be found above or on the DC TV Channel 23 livestream website.

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